LAKELAND, Fla. — Acclaimed by many fans who came just to see her make history, Rachel Balkovec debuted with a victory Friday night as the first woman to manage a Major League Baseball team’s branch. .
Balkovec guided the New York Yankees Class A Tampa Tarpons over Lakeland 9-6.
“I’ve never heard my name chanted like that,” she said. “It was so much fun. Again, I just see, it’s like I saw myself sitting in the stands, 15 or 20 years ago, and so that’s really cool.
In the post-match top-five line, Balkovec hugged each of her players and received the ball in the final. She also provided memorabilia — her jersey and hat were headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Before the game, Balkovec, 34, signed autographs, got a standing ovation when she was introduced and posed for a photo at home plate.
It was then time to get to work. She had a game to run.
However, many in the crowd felt the moment called for even more recognition.
As she ran from the dugout to the first base coach before the start of the second inning, a chant broke out at Joker Marchant Stadium.
“Let’s go Rachel!”
He came from a group of girls while the Tarpons were playing against the Flying Tigers in the Florida State League.
The Detroit Tigers Foundation – the Lakeland club is affiliated – donated tickets to female athletes at Polk County schools, and 1,200 were given away.
“They’re here right now and maybe they don’t even fully understand it at the moment, but obviously I think in the future when they go into their professional careers and they come up against maybe -be at brick walls that they will reflect on this moment,” Balkovec said.
“Strangely, it’s like I’ve always had a very strong vision, not specifically this one maybe, but I’ve always had a strong vision for my life and I understood that I could have an impact really huge, whatever field I’m in,” she says. “I felt that from an early age.”
Tampa broke a tie at 4 in the seventh inning on a grand slam from Anthony Garcia. The last of Balkovec’s five pitchers for the night closed out the win.
The night ended with a scheduled fireworks display and Balkovec signed autographs for about 20 minutes afterwards for any remaining fans who wanted one.
“100 percent, I’ll never forget that game, ever,” said highly rated Yankees prospect and Tarpons center fielder Jasson Dominguez.
Earlier in the day, Balkovec spoke at the Yankees compound at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa about his trip. Her parents were present as she spoke to reporters.
“I’ve been working for 10 years so far,” she said. “Things have evolved. I was obviously discriminated against at the time. Some people say don’t say it, but that’s just part of what happened, and I think it’s important to say it because it lets you know how much change has happened.
“So blatant discrimination, that was 2010, and now it’s 12 years later and I’m sitting here at a press conference as manager,” she said.
Balkovec and the Tarpons made the 40-mile bus trip and arrived at the stadium about 90 minutes before game time.
Dressed in gray Yankees road pants and a blue Tarpons jersey and hat, Balkovec signed autographs along the right field line and beside Tampa’s third base side dugout as planes from the nearby Sun ‘n’ Fun Aerospace Expo buzzed overhead.
She was cheered on by the crowd during pre-game on-field introductions and shook hands with referees Chris Argueza and Conor McKenna and Flying Tigers manager Andrew Graham during a lengthy exchange of cards and a ground rules review.
After the foursome posed for a group photo, the Flying Tigers took to the field and history was made.
Balkovec broke through several barriers on his way to the post. She was the first woman to be a full-time minor league strength and conditioning coach and then the first to be a full-time minor league hitting coach with the Yankees.
The Yankees announced her hire as minor league manager in January.
Balkovec, a former softball catcher in Creighton and New Mexico, got her first professional baseball job with the St. Louis Cardinals as a minor league strength and conditioning coach in 2012.
Balkovec joined the Houston Astros in 2016. She was hired as the strength and conditioning coordinator in Latin America and later served as a strength and conditioning coach at Double-A Corpus Christi.
She joined the Yankees organization as a minor league hitting coach in 2019.
Balkovec, who missed her managerial debut in spring training after being hit in the face by a batted ball during a drill on March 22, arrived 10 minutes early for Friday’s media session.
“Overall, I feel really excited,” Balkovec said. “I’m excited because it feels like, luckily, I’m in the best of times to accept a role like this because I had a lot of these players last year and I already know them.”
“I’m excited for the night because of what’s going on, but also just excited for the season because it’s like, these are my guys,” she said.